Telling the World Its True Story


Published on June 20, 2004

[On June 20, 2004, EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel delivered the commencement address for the Religious Studies Division of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook, Pennsylvania.]

Your Eminence, Cardinal Rigali; Bishop Burbidge; Father Prior; Father Costa; Dr. Chapp; distinguished members of the board of trustees; members of the faculty; graduates, students, families, and friends: Thank you for inviting me to share this commencement with you this evening, and for honoring my work with the gift of a degree.

My first words must be of congratulation to you, my fellow-members of the class of 2004 of the Religious Studies Division of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. Over the past several years you have become participants in a conversation — the living dialogue of theology and the related disciplines of religious studies — that has shaped the civilization of the West, and indeed the civilization of the entire world, for millennia. Too much of our contemporary high culture has forgotten its debt to theology. This forgetfulness, and theology’s occasional acquiescence in it, seem to me profound misreadings of the role that the life of the mind plays in the Church and in our culture. Catholic intellectual life has many missions, but its most important mission is evangelical. Since Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Ignatius of Lyons, the Church has fostered the life of the mind in order to teach the world that salvation history, the story of God’s action in history, does not run parallel to world history; salvation history is the world’s history, the world’s story, read in its depth and against its proper, transcendent horizon. Thus your task, in the years ahead, is to put what you have learned to work, in order to help the world understand its true story — the story whose chapter headings are Creation, Fall, Promise, Prophecy, Incarnation, Redemption, Sanctification, and Glorification.

In that story is found the path to genuine human flourishing.

In that story lies the fulfillment of the human aspiration to freedom.

In that story is the satisfaction of the human longing for the truth.

In the fall of 1995, shortly after his pilgrimage to New York, Brooklyn, and Baltimore, Pope John Paul II asked me what the reaction to his visit had been. I told him that a friend, a native of Texas and a high-ranking figure in the Southern Baptist Convention, had said to me, “Down where I come from, we say, ‘You folks have finally got yourself a pope who knows how to pope.’” For once, the polyglot John Paul, who speaks eight languages fluently, was utterly baffled — until I explained that in Texan, a unique form of English, “pope” was both a verb and a noun. And then we both laughed.

My Southern Baptist friend was on to something here, of course. We have all seen many, many ways in which this Pope “knows how to pope”: to be an agent of evangelization, a catalyst for change, a voice of justice for the voiceless, a bridge across chasms of historic misunderstanding and distrust, a witness to hope. The question my friend’s remark specifically poses for us here today is, what does this Pope who knows “how to pope” have to teach us about the vocation of theology — which I take to be the heart of religious studies — in the 21st century?

Let me suggest there are four lessons that we can all glean for our future work from the pontificate of John Paul II.

The first lesson is that doctrine is liberating.

In the biblical view of reality, truth binds and frees at the same time. This is a difficult notion for our contemporary culture to grasp. For the better part of two generations now, our culture has been dominated by the idea of freedom as personal autonomy — “I did it my way,” as Frank Sinatra sang, in the theme-song of this ultimately degrading concept of freedom. If we are to help the world recover its true story, we must help the world enlarge its concept of freedom, linking freedom to the liberating power of the truth.

And this means reminding ourselves of the liberating power of doctrine.

It has been said thousands of times before, but it bears saying again: too much of today’s theological debate is conducted through the essentially political and analytically sterile categories of “liberal” and “conservative” approaches to doctrine. These are, we must insist, wholly inappropriate categories for thinking through ancient and complex religious traditions. No one asks whether the Dalai Lama is a “liberal” or a “conservative” Buddhist. Why? Because we instinctively understand that these are the wrong categories to apply to this subtle, learned man and the tradition he represents. The same self-denying ordinance should be applied to contemporary Christian life and the nature of Christian doctrine.

The issue here is not simply one of semantic hygiene. Theology parsed according to these defective criteria — theology that asks whether a given position is “liberal” and “conservative” — distorts the very thing it tries to grasp, for it misses the relationship between tradition and innovation, the static and the dynamic, in the life of the Church. What can seem static in the Great Tradition of Christianity in fact reflects the Church’s internal dynamism and creates the impetus for the unfolding of new, dynamic elements in Christian life. What can seem dead tradition is in fact the engine of development and innovation. Let me take three examples.

The first is Holy Scripture. We know that the canon of Scripture is fixed and that new books are not going to be added to the Old or New Testaments. But the fact that the Church does not add new books to the canon of Scripture does not make Scripture a dead letter. Rather, the canon insures that what is truly the Word of God can be received freshly and in its integrity by every generation of believers, inviting them to a deeper faith through the mediation of the Bible.

Then there is the Church’s sacramental system. The sacraments are not simply traditional rituals, performed because previous generations performed them before us. Rather, the sacraments enable each new generation of Christians to experience the great mysteries of faith — the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord — anew. Every day, the sacraments remind each generation of Christians that just on the far side of the ordinary — water, salt, and oil; bread and wine; marital love and fidelity — lies the extraordinary reality of a God who so loved the world he created that he entered that world, in his son, to redirect the world’s history back toward its true destiny, which is eternal life within the light and love of the Trinity.

Finally, there is the matter of authority. The Church does not have structures of pastoral authority in order to impede human creativity. Rather, authority in the Church exists to insure that Christians do not settle for mediocrity. Authority in the Church is meant to help all of us hold ourselves accountable to the one supreme criterion of faith, the living Christ. This is the great service that pastoral authority does for theology and other forms of Catholic intellectual life, and it should be acknowledged as such.1

All of which means that one of your tasks, as you take up “life after Borromeo,” will be to retrieve and renew the concept of tradition. In the distinctively Christian understanding of the term, “tradition,” which from its Latin root, traditio, means “handing on,” begins inside the very life of God the Holy Trinity.2 That “handing-on” — that radical self-giving that mysteriously enhances both giver and receiver — took flesh in the life of Christ and continues in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus a venerable formula distinguishes between tradition, the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism, the dead faith of the living. In the theological creativity of John Paul II — in his groundbreaking “theology of the body,” in his social doctrine, in his concept of the “Marian Church” of disciples that makes possible and makes sense of the Petrine Church of jurisdiction and office, in his analysis of the life issues crucial for the human future — we may see at work innovative and compelling teaching, rooted in tradition, reminding the world of the story it too often forgets and creating the foundations for a springtime of evangelization.

Thus the first lesson we might well learn from John Paul II is that we ought to grasp, welcome, and convey to our contemporaries the liberating power of doctrine. Doctrine is not excess baggage weighing us down on our journey of faith. Doctrine is the vehicle that enables the journey to take place.

The second lesson for theology and for the Catholic intellectual life from this Pope who knows “how to pope” is that we must learn once again to think on our knees, not simply at our desks or in our libraries.

During his fourteen years as archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyla did his intellectual work in the chapel of his residence, at a table set up before the Blessed Sacrament. It was a habit he brought with him to Rome. For more than a quarter-century, John Paul II has done much of his intellectual work in the chapel of the papal apartment. That is where he crafts his homilies, his audience addresses, his magisterium. That, he believes, is where Christian thinking is best done, for Christian intellectual life, rightly understood, is another way to “practice the presence.”

Given the circumstances of our lives, not all of us can do our intellectual work — our study, our writing, our class-preparation, and so forth — before the Blessed Sacrament. But we can always do that work, quite self-consciously, in the presence of the Lord. If we are to do this, though, we must recognize another ancient truth: namely, that theology — the heart of Christian intellectual life — does not take a neutral standpoint, looking at the Church and its tradition from “outside,” as if examining a specimen through a microscope. Theology in the proper vocational sense of the term is always done within the community of faith. And while theology may have multiple audiences, including the world of secular scholarship, theology’s primary audience must always be the community of believers, the Church.

To do theology “on our knees,” to “practice the presence” while doing our Catholic intellectual work, does not mean abandoning critical intelligence. Rather, it means grasping again, like the doctors of the Church, that true wisdom emerges from a dialectic between critical intelligence and a reverent reception of the Great Tradition. The resolution of that dialectic, under grace, is wisdom.

To participate in this dialectic requires that we understand the tradition before we begin critically analyzing it. In an important address to the faculty and students of the Pontifical Gregorian University on December 15, 1979, John Paul II enthusiastically welcomed theology’s new dialogue with contemporary science and modern philosophy, arguing that the signature phrase of his pontificate — “Be not afraid!” — applied to what he termed “the great movements of contemporary thought.” Whatever deepened our understanding of the “whole truth” about humanity and its world, deepens our understanding of Christ, the redeemer of the world, he suggested. Yet genuine theological development in dialogue with modernity, the Pope continued, had to be based on a “responsible assimilation of the patrimony” of Christian wisdom. A good theological education, he implied, does not begin with dismantling the tradition. It begins with learning the tradition. The same can be said of good religious education.

To insist on this ongoing, prayerful dialogue with the Lord as an essential part of your work is more than a methodological consideration. Our times have given us too many examples of what happens when the dialectic between a reverent, prayerful reception of tradition and critical intelligence breaks down, and the tradition is regarded as simply another tool in the theologian’s kit-box, of no greater importance than any other . One of the most frightening of those examples is that of the Deutschechristen, those German Christians who sold the birthright of the Great Tradition for the lethal mess of pottage that was Nazi ideology. As a Deutschechristen pastor once put it, “For us, what Jesus said is not decisive. And Church councils, too, err and have erred. We gladly let ourselves be labeled heretics for this knowledge, for it has always been heretics that have saved the Church’s life.” In plain fact, of course, it was not the Deutschechristen who “saved” the Church during the Third Reich, but theologically astute witnesses like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edith Stein who exemplified the dialectic of the Great Tradition and critical, contemporary intelligence. And if that suggests that part of the Christian intellectual’s vocation must always be the risk of martyrdom, of giving full and public witness to the truths of the faith, however uncomfortable they may be, then that, too, is something to reflect upon this afternoon.

The third thing we learn from this Pope who “knows how to pope” is that the Catholic life of the mind today must be ecumenical in its sensibility. I use the word “ecumenical” here in several senses.

Theologians and other Catholic religious educators must practice what the great Russian Orthodox theologian, Father Georges Florovsky, once called the “ecumenism of time.” The Catholic conversation today must include, as honored partners, the master theologians of the past. For truth is not confined by the boundaries of chronology, and there is much to be learned today from those who have practiced the vocation of theology in the past, including the very distant past. As the Second Vatican Council understood well, aggiornamento, “updating,” must always proceed from ressourcement, a return to the sources of Christian wisdom in Scripture, the Fathers, and the medieval masters. The ecumenism of time promotes a truly open theological conversation that is prof against the cult of the contemporary.

As Pope John Paul II has demonstrated time and again, most poignantly during his epic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Catholic theology today, and Catholic religious education today, must also take account of the Church’s roots in the revelation of God contained in Hebrew Bible, as we must take account of Christianity’s common moral border with the Jewish people and of Christianity’s divinely-mandated engagement with living Judaism, the people of the covenant.

And Catholic thinkers today must also be in active conversation with followers of other great world religions, in the confidence that all truths point to the one Truth, who is God. The world doubts that the most deeply-held convictions of human beings can be put into genuine conversation; the world suspects that the encounter between those convictions can only lead to conflict. Catholics in the 21st century must demonstrate how a commitment to the truth is also and always a commitment to an open and respectful conversation with others. In doing so, you will be doing far more than observing the academic proprieties; you will be helping the world recover a crucial lost part of its story.

Finally, we learn from John Paul II that the Christian intellectual life is a vocation to holiness. True theology, the Pope told the Gregorian University in 1979, is an encounter with Christ, and genuine theological teaching is a way to “convey to the young a living experience of him.” That is true of any authentically Christian form of teaching. Theology and the other disciplines you have studied here do not, in other words, exist for themselves; they exist for the Church and for the “formation of Christians.” What we ought to love, the Pope concluded, is not our own skills, formidable as they may or may not be, but what St. Thomas Aquinas called the “excellence of truth.” That is the path to sanctity for all Christian teachers, who share in the universal call to holiness and who are charged with the responsibility of helping lead others to holiness.

In reminding the Church of the liberating nature of doctrine, you will both serve the household of faith and enable our society to understand that genuine freedom is always ordered to truth and finds its fulfillment in genuine human flourishing.

In doing your intellectual work “on your knees,” you will emulate the Master who came not to be served but to serve; and you will remind the world that self-giving, not self-assertion, is the royal road to human happiness.

In pursuing the ecumenism of time, the Christian ecumenical dialogue, the essential conversation with living Judaism and the encounter with the other great world religions, you will remind that world that tolerance means the engagement of differences in respectful dialogue, not the avoidance of differences or the acceptance of a public arena shorn of religiously-grounded moral convictions.

And in pursuing your work as a vocation to holiness, you will sanctify both the Church and the world. The world may have forgotten its story. But it remains, nonetheless, a world that is, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “charged with the grandeur of God” — a world that is yearning for the truth that the followers of Christ are uniquely positioned to offer it.

My fellow-alumni of St. Charles Borromeo seminary, let us be messengers and servants of that truth.

Godspeed on your vocational journey.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

_________________

NOTES

1 On these points, see Hans Urs von Balthasar, In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 55-57.

2 See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama IV: The Action (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), pp. 92-93.


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